Except that this album, Chicago Transit Authority’s self-titled debut stopped that dead in its tracks. I had no idea what to say. It’s not just that this album is long (it is), not just that I knew nothing about the band (I didn’t) or that it’s an album that sprawls into different genres so much that it’s hard to pin down. I’ve spent the best part of the month listening to this album and pondering whether it’s likeable, epic and groundbreaking, or just a flabby mess of ideas that don’t really congeal into real substance.
I still don’t know really. With the first listen, it’s a quite amazing mix of jazz, rock and soul with a good mix of proto-funk. The second listen, once you’ve got over the surprise, leaves you feeling there’s too much going on to really make sense of, that the album is too intangible to really enjoy, and that it’s ultimately forgettable.
Early tracks on the album don’t really help with that, and despite the James Brown-esque riffing that kicks of “Introduction”, it soon settles down into a seventies-mellow sound that, if you listen to very carefully, you’ll probably hear fondue cooking and car keys hitting the bowl in. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”, which follows, is vapid and ballady.
In fact the fireworks don’t really begin on this one till the aptly titled “Beginnings”, which sets the frame for the album nicely with soul vocals, some funky drumming and enough horn to make Mark Ronson shit himself. It sits somewhere between Jefferson Airplane and Earth, Wind and Fire, which is a strange place to sit, but it’s full of flavour and gets better as it goes on.
“Questions 67 and 68” has a more rock feel, but keeps it horny. Peter Cetera takes the vocals here, and it’s the only real point on the album where you can imagine him singing “Glory of Love” 17 years later.
When the following track, “Listen” starts you’re left thinking “Oh fuck, more horns”, but then there’s that delicious bass riff that kicks in at 0:23, and you forgive its trespasses. That same disjointed feel remains on the more impressive “Poem 58”, but that has the bonus of some fantastic Fender-chewing thrash, before it too settles down into a soulful groove half way through.
The rest of the album is where the magic really happens though. “Free Form Guitar” wouldn’t seem out of place as a hidden Nirvana track, and “South California Purples” has the perfect union of jazz, rock and funk, along with a joyous little bit of “I am the Walrus” mischief.
The highlight of the album though, is undeniably their epic cover of the Spencer Davis Group’s “I’m a Man”, a rocking funk triumph with a truly triumphant drum solo kicking in at 3:10. It’s reminiscent of “Whole Lotta Love”, and was in fact employed alongside the Zep classic by New York DJ Francis Grasso, who used both tracks to pioneer beat mixing (and inadvertently inventing Disco in the process).
“Prologue” and “Someday” throw some politics into the already complicated mix, but neither really have much to offer. The album closer, “Liberation”, though, certainly does, with a gentle start that leads into a Mongolian clusterfuck of Booker T and the MGs, Deep Purple, James Brown and Miles Davis, before closing with a 10-minute guitar extravaganza that’s just epic.
To me though, this album feels like one of those all-you-can-eat world buffets. Some of it is delicious, some of it is lukewarm and bland, but it’s an indulgent feast of variety that you’ll stuff yourself silly with before finding yourself guiltily returning for seconds.